Contemporary Ukiyo-e Print

KOHEI KYOMORI x UNSODO

Kohei Kyomori is a decorative artist who reinterprets decorative arts from different decades and cultures around the world. Many of his paintings are inspired by ukiyo-e and in his latest project, Kyomori's first-time collaboration with Kyoto woodblock print publisher, "UNSODO" reveals a spectacular contemporary ukiyo-e print. Working with a 'horishi' engraver and a 'surishi' printer, the woodcut print combines traditional 17th-century and modern techniques to create an original woodblock print. In total, 22 woodblocks (with 44 front and back printing plates) were repeatedly pressed 191 times for a single woodblock print. The masterful techniques of the artisans produce delicate contours and smooth individually blended color gradients. For Kyomori, this new venture shows the vital oeuvre of Japan's rich historical tapestry of techniques stemming from the old Edo tradition.

Kohei Kyomori aims to create a unique visual language by reinterpreting the ornamentation found in all forms of art from the East to the West through a contemporary perspective applied in his graphic works. Having thoroughly studied the role and nature of decoration in ceramics, architecture, clothing, and seals, Kyomori has transformed his work through a production technique rooted in the idea of handicraft. His works are the result of continuous reflection on the idea, aesthetics and history of decoration. At a time when people are losing the human aspect of fundamentally using their own hands of modeling and expressing an object, Kyomori offers an opportunity to re-investigate human activity in our digital shift.

KOHEI KYOMORI

UN men No.2

2022
Sheet, Paper
37.0 × 24.5 cm

Edition of 100

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During my visit to the engraver and printer studios, I was able to experience firsthand the carving and printing process. Needless to say, their expertise are not something you can learn overnight and I am fascinated by the fact that these techniques were handed down centuries ago from one generation to another.

This project first began as a digital painting and is now captured by the spirit of woodblock printing. By commissioning the work to the engraver and woodblock printer, there was a mode of creative partnership through a single work process I was unable to control, which was exciting to experience. I hope viewers recognize that a single woodblock print was created through the vast network of creative exchanges and expertise shaped by many.

Kohei Kyomori

Carving

The engraver carves the woodblock using refined carving techniques. Based on Kyomori's "hanshita-e" sketch, he begins by determining how to separate the colors and how many woodblocks are needed to create the print. The carver deciphers the artist's intentions and skillfully maneuvers with his various knives to chisel and carve blocks of wild cherry wood. In this project, hand-carving and laser cutting; a fusion of traditional and modern techniques, were used to eloquently carve 22 woodblocks (44 front and back printing plates) and faithfully reproduce Kyomori's digital painting.

A Fusion of Digital and Analog Techniques

The digital painting was reproduced as a print through traditional woodblock printing techniques. The woodblock carving process uses both manual carving and parts using a laser machine. On the other hand, the printing process and color blending were all by hand, just as it was done back in the Edo Period.

Nowadays, artists can produce prints through various ways: hand-painting, lithography, silkscreen printing, and high-definition printing. Woodblock printing allows for the audiences to experience the warmth and craftsmanship of a wooblock print created through the fusion of both digital and analog.

Expressing the Deep Colors Characteristic of Woodblock Prints

The digital painting was composed of separate layers for each shape and color, but only the colors in the top layer were expressed in the final print. If the original painting were to be turned into a woodblock print as is, all the colored areas would have to be carved without any gaps, similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle.


This would be very difficult to accomplish technically, and would not be practical for water-based woodblock pigments, since any color overlaid on another color tends to change its hue. This requires communication back and forth between the artist and printer to decide on which colors are suitable for this overlay method. Leveraging this same characteristic, the final outcome produces the deep and rich colors in the final print.

22 Woodblocks, 44 Printing Plates

Pigments have varying particle size depending on the color. Furthermore, depending on the concentration of the pigment solution, the colored area may become thicker than the carved line in the print. The thinner the line, the more susceptible it becomes to variations in particle size and concentration. Therefore, some parts of the color blocks requires ingenuity in the carving. The basic rule is to make one woodblock for each color, however the colors are separated and the number of color blocks required depends on the sketch for the print. Misjudging this color separation step can lead to a higher workload in the printing step which may greatly affect the finishing of the print.

The sketch had many fine delicate lines that couldn't be carved with the laser engraver. We had to modify the digital data to first carve the outlines before retouching them manually. It was my first time to use both laser engraving and hand carving techniques in such an intricate manner. By leveraging each method's strengths to compensate for their weaknesses, I was able to obtain a satisfactory result.

Engraver: Shouichi Kitamura

Printing

In the printing step, the printer prints the carved woodblock by the engraver on the paper while repeating the process for each color to complete the piece.

The printer has to repeat the printing countless times while calculating the overall balance the tone of the print and making fine adjustments to the woodblock, paper, and paint. This requires a high level of skill with precision swiftly and accurately. A typical woodblock print is completed after 15 to 20 pressings, but this project required 191 pressings to thoroughly express the intricacy of Kyomori's artwork reciprocated as a print.

The Unique Qualities of Woodblock Prints

A digital print was used for the sketch, but after turning it into a woodblock print, you can see the depth of the colors created by human hands onto the fibers of the washi paper. It gives 'individuality' that is absent in a digital print. Unlike digital printing and other printmaking techniques, woodblock printing is a very simple analog printing technique. As the materials bind together, woodblock prints attain a warm unique quality and the beauty of imperfection that can only be created by human hands.

A Vividness Produced Through Intricacy and Quantity of Color

In order to preserve the intricate quality of the original painting, a mizusuri is required to flatten the grain of the paper. Handmade washi paper has many minute irregularities on its surface. Mizusuri flattens these irregularities and allows for a smoother application. The painting contains various elements, including sharp lines and fine patterns that were carved with a laser engraver. The various factors had to be carefully controlled in order to improve the compatibility with the paper allowing for smoother application while preserving the work's intricacy.

Preserving the Certainty of Manual Work with the Vividness of a Digital Print

With water-based woodblock paints, even bright colors become subdued when applyed on paper. This may be due to the color of the washi paper, or the pigment's deep absorption into the fibers. This characteristic is one of the charms of woodblock prints. This project proved to be a good opportunity for working out how to create paints that bring out both the beauty of the original painting and of woodblock printing while preserving its overall image.

It was a precious experience to devote a long, deliberate time and effort for an artwork. At a glance, it may be difficult to recognize that it's a woodblock print. But I think I've found a new facet to the slow and analog process of woodblock printing. Even though I've been working in this trade for a long time, I feel like I've rediscovered the profound artistic expressions of woodblock prints.

Woodblock Printer: Kyoko Hirai

Gallery Exhibition

KOHEI KYOMORI: Impression O

Taipei

December 24, 2022 – February 18, 2023

View Gallery Exhibition

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